Jean-Paul Sartre 1946

The Time of the Assassins

Source: Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, Les Écrits de Sartre. Paris, Gallimard, 1970. (Originally in the review “Franchise,” No. 3, November-December 1946;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor, 2008;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2008.

As the Cold War began, a constant theme of Sartre’s was the danger of the belief that a Third World War was inevitable. This was to be one of the reasons for his subsequent membership in the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire in 1948-49. The following short piece is the first of many he was to write on the subject.

This war will be the war of fear. It is in fear that it is being prepared. People are allowing it to come on slowly, with a kind of ecstasy. They believe in it like they believe in chiromancy, like a confessor, like everything that releases them from forging their own destiny. They love their fear; it reconciles them with themselves, it suspends the faculties of the soul in the same way as sneezing and diarrhoea. And that threat that weighs on their heads conceals from them the empty heavens: it’s a roof. And in the meanwhile, the terrorized governments observe each other. When in a panic a nation will make too abrupt a gesture, the others will leap at its throat.

Then the abstract massacre will begin. Once we risked our lives against that of others; we saw the enemy dead up close, we could touch their wounds; from further away we fire without any risks, we’ll die for nothing. Technicians in Washington, in Texas, will prepare the mass graves of Baku and Leningrad without seeing them. Without even imagining them. No heroes, no martyrs: a cataclysm falling on panicked beasts.

I don’t believe in the end of the world, and I don’t even know if I believe in this war. Twenty years, perhaps fifty years will pass before it occurs. But if throughout this time we continue to expect it, if for fifty years we have to marinate in fear, if we convince ourselves that in order to live we have to await the end of the next conflict, we will then have rendered the atom bomb three quarters useless. There will no longer be any men to kill; it will already have been done.